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What Are Oxymorons?

What Are Oxymorons?

You may have heard the terms "workcation" or "virtual reality" used often in recent years. Do they seem a little strange to you?

They are examples of the many English terms that combine words that are opposites or contradict each other in order to emphasize the meaning or to stand out. These terms are called "oxymorons."

Oxymorons are more common than you probably realize. You hear them every day in conversation, and they are often used in news, TV, books, movies and music.

This article will explain why oxymorons are used and introduce some very common ones you may have heard — or maybe have even used yourself!

(By the way, a "workcation" is a vacation in which you also do work!)

What are oxymorons?

The Oxford dictionary describes oxymorons this way: “a phrase that combines two words that seem to be the opposite of each other.”

But what’s the purpose of combining opposites?

Why are oxymorons used?

One big reason for using oxymorons is because they are memorable. If you hear or read a contradiction, it gets your attention and you want to find out more in order to make sense of the statement.

Another reason is that they often express deeper meanings. For example, look at the word “bittersweet.” Obviously, it's a combination of words that are opposites, but put together, it expresses a very particular feeling or situation in which happiness is mixed with sadness. There are other ways to describe this feeling, but an oxymoron can do it powerfully with only one word.

Oxymorons in everyday use

A stack of newspapers on top of a laptop computer

Here are a few oxymorons you are likely to hear in daily conversations.

Small crowd

“Crowded” is an adjective that means “a large amount of people in one area.” As a noun, it becomes “crowd.” So a “small crowd” is a vague, or unclear, expression. There is no exact number that separates a small crowd from a big crowd, so it depends on the situation you are describing. This term is often used on the news, so be sure to listen for it.

A small crowd of people gathered to watch the street performer.

Old news

“News” usually refers to the newest information about current events. However, “old” is the very opposite of “current.” The oxymoron "old news" is used to refer to information that someone is learning late or after everyone else has already heard it.

Did you know that Mark is moving overseas?
That’s old news. I’ve known for weeks already.

Awfully good

“Awful” is a strong adjective that means “terrible” or “very bad.” But in the adverb form “awfully,” it can be used as a way to emphasize things. So “awfully good” is another way to say “extremely good.”

Wow, you’re awfully good at guitar!

Good grief

“Grief” expresses sorrow, but this combination of words does not literally mean “grief that is good.” Instead, it's used to express surprise and annoyance. It's a less-religious version of the phrase “Good God!” or “Good Lord!”

"Good grief!" is actually a famous line often said by Charlie Brown from Peanuts!

Inside out

This is one of the most common everyday oxymorons, and its meaning should be easy to understand.

You should turn your jeans inside out before putting them in the washing machine.

Inside Out is also the title of a Pixar movie from 2015. We'll discuss movies more in just a little bit...

Passive aggressive

Being aggressive is being forceful, bold, direct or even violent in your actions. On the other hand, being passive aggressive is being silent, slightly disrespectful or lazy as a way to indirectly show your negative feelings toward another person. It is not considered a positive thing.

Many people avoided her because they didn't like her passive aggressive behavior.

Oxymorons in popular media

A crowd of people watching a film in a movie theater


As we explained earlier, oxymorons can be very memorable. That's probably why they are often used as titles for film and television projects. Let's take a look at a few examples below.

True Lies (1994)

This film stars Arnold Schwarzenegger, who plays a salesman with a boring desk job. However, in reality he is an international spy with a dangerous, exciting life. His wife and daughter know nothing about his real work, so the lies he tells them every day aren't small, innocent lies; they are very deep, serious ones. In other words, true lies.

Back to the Future (1985)

This is the first film in an extremely popular series of science-fiction adventure movies. Naturally, the future is ahead of us, so going "back" to the future is a perfect example of an oxymoron. It's also a great title for a movie about traveling through time.

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

When it was first released, people must have been shocked and confused by the title's strange combination of words. "Living dead" is a very clever and effective way to describe a zombie. That's a good thing, because this film is known as the original zombie movie!


Oxymorons also appear frequently in the titles of songs. We've collected three examples below.

The Sound of Silence (Simon & Garfunkel - 1964)

This is a famous song by a folk rock duo from the United States, and has been remade by different artists over the years.

The title is mysterious and could make you interested in finding out what the deeper meaning may be. If you're curious, read the lyrics and use them as a study tool!

The Tears of a Clown (Smokey Robinson & The Miracles - 1967)

You may wonder why clowns cry when their only job is making people laugh. But clowns are people just like everyone else, and everyone feels sad sometimes. Why might this clown be crying? 

Similar to the Simon & Garfunkel song, this title stands out and makes you wonder about the song's content. It's one of the many classics from Motown, a record company based in Detroit, USA that produced legendary soul, R&B and pop musicians in the 1960s, 70s and 80s.

Cold Fire (Rush - 1993)

Rush is a rock band from Canada, and this song is about the difficulties of love and relationships. It ends with the dramatic line "Love can turn to a long, cold burn." 

Even though the lyrics are poetic, the words are simple, so you can also give this a try for studying English. 

Oxymorons are everywhere

When you have a strong understanding of words, you can begin to play with them in fun and interesting ways. As we've shown in this article, combining words with opposite meanings can create unique terms that catch your eye and stay in your memory. So keep your eyes open for oxymorons and you will start to appreciate the power of opposites that come together.